There’s a good chance that, by the time you read this column, those of us at the Fort Bend Star will have the list of eight finalists for the Missouri City manager job in our hands and be prepared to write a story about the issue.
The point here isn’t to emphasize that we’re doing our job, so much as to emphasize that city leaders will have had access to that list far earlier than we did, or you did.
We wrote more than a week ago about the fact that the Missouri City council planned to interview eight city manager candidates sometime this month. We received notice from the city Oct. 21 that they had received our request for a list of those candidates and that they’d be getting back to us. We first reached out about the list on Oct. 19.
Texas open records laws require governmental entities to respond to such requests within 10 business days of receipt. But more and more often, it seems municipalities across the state read that as permission not to respond for as long as 10 days, when the exact text of the law seems to favor the requestor over the entity being asked for information.
“Under the fundamental philosophy of the American constitutional form of representative government that adheres to the principle that government is the servant and not the master of the people, it is the policy of this state that each person is entitled, unless otherwise expressly provided by law, at all times to complete information about the affairs of government and the official acts of public officials and employees,” begins Chapter 552 of the Texas Government Code, laying out the state’s public records laws.
The Texas Comptroller’s Office takes it a step further, asserting that all governmental bodies must “promptly” release requested information that is not confidential by law.
Far be it from us to try to say it any more succinctly than those who crafted the very laws themselves. Municipalities, elected leaders, law enforcement agencies and every other publicly funded entity works for us – not the other way around. When we enter the voting booth and pull the lever for one candidate or the other, no matter the result, “we” collectively are appointing a representative for all of us to oversee the business that affects us all.
But increasingly, it seems the philosophy of a government working on behalf of the people, fully transparent, is more aspirational than operational.
As you read through this piece, please don’t think of it a critique of Missouri City specifically. Rather, the list of school districts, cities and agencies that have moved slowly, or sought to withhold documents, when the public comes knocking for transparency is legion, both across the state and in Fort Bend County.
One more sympathetic to the demands of overworked municipal employees might reasonably argue that it takes time to compile information, and sometimes it takes all 10 days to bring all the information together to fulfill a request. Some requests seek piles upon piles of data and documents. So there’s no doubt some truth to those claims.
Here’s where we arrive back at the beginning, however.
If a councilmember in any city across Fort Bend County made a complicated request for information to a municipal employee, most elected leaders would be understanding that some requests might take time to process. Compiling data doesn’t happen overnight, and sometimes requests can stack up.
In other words, you have a situation where both elected leaders and the average resident are treated the same.
But in the case of the Missouri City manager candidates, you have a situation where councilmembers have known who the eight candidates are for more than a week longer than any resident or media entity. Does it really take 10 full business days to send a list that already exists, and is presumably in the hands of at least a few?
Residents across Missouri City have a vested interest in the search for the next city manager. Whoever is selected will be the public face of the city, and be in charge of handling many of the thorniest issues facing the community moving forward.
And recent history has shown the stakes are high. Councilmembers have been searching for a new city manager since opting to fire Odis Jones in a 5-2 vote at an April meeting. The move came a little more than a year after the council ousted Anthony Snipes in February 2020 in a 4-3 vote. All told, the city has given out almost $700,000 in severance payments to ousted city managers.
Given that, residents deserve a real chance to weigh in on the matter and consider the options before elected leaders get so far down the path, there aren’t other options.
When the state’s leaders first sat down to craft laws about public records all those years ago, they were smart enough to recognize the most important lesson of all – elected leaders everywhere serve at the pleasure of their constituents.
Now, it’s well worth considering the full implication of that fact, and striving to live up to the ideal.